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Entries in Arlington National Cemetery (21)

Thursday
May212009

Arlington National Cemetery

Ok, loyal reader(s), I hope you think I have not totally abandoned you. I'm afraid, as I mentioned earlier, that the spring tour season tends to truly overwhelm me, and other projects tend to fall by the wayside. Be patient, and I hope I can help you folks our here and there with a few hints.

For now, as the Memorial Day weekend approaches, I thought I'd lay out my standard path through Arlington National Cemetery. Personally, I find it one of the most rewarding places to guide folks through, as I feel I add more value here than anywhere else on our standard DC tours. I hope in the coming months to give you some other, more specialized, tours of Arlington that will highlight different aspects that are less commonly visited. For now, I'll assume it's your first visit and you'd like to see the big stuff. If you want to take the Tourmobile, and on a sweltering hot July day I wouldn't blame you, feel free, but I find a hike through the Cemetery a better way to experience it.


View Arlington National Cemetery in a larger map

I generally skip the Visitors Center and head, instead to the Women in Military Service Memorial. It has all the restroom facilities of the Visitors Center and the gift shop here sells bottled water, a must for hot days. Normally, no food or drink is allowed in Arlington, but as they find heatstroke victims incompatible with the solemn nature of the Cemetery, they don't quibble over water. Also, in addition to the standard exhibits about women in the military, the Women's Memorial is currently hosting an excellent exhibit entitled "Fly Girls of World War II", dealing with the experiences of female pilots in that conflict.

As you exit the Women's Memorial, take a left, go through the ceremonial gates, and stop at the top of the rise, where the Curtis Walk intersects the road.. Before we talk about the many worthy folks to our left, I'll take a moment to mention martyred civil rights hero Medgar Evers. He lies under a standard government issue headstone a few feet down the walk to our right. Often, there will be several stones left on the gravestone, out of respect in the Jewish tradition. Turning around, perhaps most notable of the the folks visible from here is the greatest American President, President Taft, depending on how one defines "greatness". He lies under a suitably large marker up a parallel path to the one we will be walking. In this section, often called "General's Row" lie a great concentration of 20th Century American Generals, including one of only nine five star Americans, Gen. of the Army Omar Bradley. As we walk up the path, notice the person on the first row second from the path, Lt. Gen Timothy Maude. General Maude was the highest ranking officer killed on Sept. 11th.


At the top of the hill, we find an elaborate sarcophagus with a familiar name on it; the final resting spot of Robert Todd Lincoln, the only surviving son of President Lincoln. It's particularly fitting he lies here, within view of his father's memorial across the river. Across the path from Lincoln, near a small bench under a large tree, lies another Supreme Court Justice, Justice Hugo Black (the first being Chief Justice William Howard Taft).

Continue to Sheridan Road and take a left, towards the Kennedy tombs. Just before you hit the bend there is a standard government issued tombstone nestled among the more ornate privately purchased ones. It belongs to Vice Admiral Paul F. Foster and is a good chance to note the gold lettering reserved for Medal of Honor recipients. Admiral Foster was awarded his for operations in the battle of Vera Cruz in 1914 as a young Ensign. Three rows behind him is a name that will almost certainly be more familiar: Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Even though the practice of purchasing your own tombstone is discontinued at Arlington, I guess Chief Justices still got a little pull in this town.

Speaking of pull, as we continue down the path, we will come to the Weeks memorial, whose grandeur is a result of his tenure on the House Appropriations Committee, rather than any feats of arms. Behind Weeks, lies "Justice's Corner" where the majority of Supreme Court Justices at Arlington lie. Justices Thurgood Marshall, Potter Stewart, Brennan, and Burger are all visible from the road and if you bear to the right on the way up to JFK's tomb, you will find the back of Justices William Douglas's and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr's. tombs. Nestled among them is a genius of another type, Father of the Nuclear Navy Rear Admiral Hyman Rickover. It's thanks to his ilk I had to take Physics and Calculus once upon a time, not that I'm bitter.

As we progress up the hill we will find the most visited grave in Arlington; that of President Kennedy, his wife Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and two of their children. John F. Kennedy Jr. is not with them, but was instead buried with his wife and her sister at sea off of Martha's Vineyard from the decks of the USS Briscoe. Follow the curve of the hill and you will find President Kennedy's brother Sen. Robert Kennedy, laying under the only white wooden cross at Arlington, as his will specified. Of course, his will also specified he was to be buried in Massachusetts, but you can't have everything.

Once we exit the Kennedy compound, take a right on Sheridan Drive again and continue around the bend. As you walk along the road, you will note many of the older, Victorian era graves along the right, which can be quite elaborate. The tall obelisk (or Washington Monument looking thingee, as my schoolkids call it) is Major General Joseph Wheeler, a Confederate veteran who came back into uniform to fight in the Spanish-American War. Near him, partway up the hill on your right before you make the bend is Fleet Admiral William Halsey, Jr., who famously vowed that the "Japanese language will be only spoken in hell" after Pearl Harbor.

Once you make the bend you will come to Weeks Walk. This is the most direct path to the Tomb of the Unknowns and we'll be taking it. If you wish to add a bit to your walk, you can continue straight and follow the road to your left to the Unknowns. This would also be a good time to visit the Lee House if you wish to add that trip. For now, let's mention a few folks we can see here. Just to the left of Weeks Walk, as you look towards the Lee House, is Fleet Admiral William Leahy, the most senior of the nine five stars but, perversely enough, junior to four star Generals George Washington and John "Black Jack" Pershing. To the right of the walk, a row down from the crest of the hill is Rear Admiral Charles D. Sigsbee, final Captain of the USS Maine, for obvious reasons. And, no the dollar sign like symbol you see on several tombs does NOT represent money; it is the letters I H S superimposed on each other. IHS is the latinization of the Greek letters Iota Eta Sigma, which is the first three letters of Jesus on Greek.

Let us turn around now and head down the hill and back up the next one. In honor of all those eighth graders who have made this trek with me, points will be awarded to the most creative complaints. After you've come up the other side, the Memorial Amphitheater will be directly ahead of you. Ignore it for now and head to the right. At the top of a small rise will be tall, white mast like structure that is, well, a mast. Specifically, it is the main mast of the USS Maine, the warship that blew up in Havana harbor. Debate continues on it's cause, but a 1976 investigation by our good friend Admiral Rickover concluded it was an internal explosion, probably from a coal fire. Sorry about that, Spain. Anyway, the graves of 224 Sailors and Marines are buried about the Memorial, of which only 62 are known.

As you walked up the path to the Maine Memorial, there was a short T-shaped path with three Memorials on it to the right. As we wait for the herd of folks to get out of the way, let us all take a moment to compose in our heads a letter to the Cemetery begging them to replace the path with a horseshoe shaped one. Either way, from left to right, these are the Memorials to the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, the Iran Hostage Rescue, and the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Remains from all three tragedies are nearby. Lt Colonel Dick Scobee, Challenger's commander is two graves to the left, next to him is a joint grave to three airmen from the Iranian rescue attempt, and directly ahead is the graves of three Columbia astronauts.

Now we can head to the Memorial Amphitheater. If it is not Easter, Memorial Day, or Veteran's Day weekends, the Amphitheater is probably open. Services for each of those holidays are held here, and the President will almost always make at least one, if not all three. Additionally, funeral services for a handful of Americans have been held here, including Gen. Pershing, Gen Hap Arnold, five September 11 victims, and the various Unknown Soldiers.

Which brings us to the big show: the Changing of the Guard. Swing around behind the stage of the Amphitheater and you will be on a balcony overlooking the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This is my personal favorite spot to watch the Changing of the Guard; on the balcony towards your right. This way, you get to see both the Changing, as well as the inspection of the oncoming guard. From April 1 to September 30th, the Guard is Changed every half hour from 8 am until 7 pm. The rest of the year, the Changing only happens on the hour and the Cemetery closes at 5 pm. In addition to the large crypt of the World War I Unknown Soldier, there three flat marble tombs from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The Vietnam tomb is currently empty with the identification of the Unknown Solder from that conflict, Air Force 1LT Michael J. Blassie. Take a moment to swing by the small museum in the Amphitheater building directly opposite the Tomb. It's an excellent little exhibit discussing the Unknowns as well as a great place to escape the heat in summer.

From the Tomb, I like to head down to the right and loop around below the Tomb. From there, you can get a good view of the front of the Tomb, with it's excellent bas-relief of Peace, Victory, and Valor. Peace is on the left holding an dove, Victory is in the center holding Peace's hand and a olive branch, and Valor is on the right holding a broken sword. Continue across and you will be in section 7a, which holds the highest number of Medal of Honor winners in the Cemetery. Immediately on you right will be Captain Michael Smith, pilot of the Challenger. In addition to the several dozen military heroes in this section, two folks better known for their civilian careers are buried at the end of the walk where it hits two semicircles of benches. Joe Lewis has a large, easily identifiable tombstone with a relief of the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. Directly next to him is the actor Lee Marvin, a Purple Heart recipient from the Battle of Saipan in World War II.

By now, you're probably ready to head home. Take a left on Roosevelt Drive and head down the hill to the Visitor's Center. As you cross the intersection of Grant Drive, there's a cluster of interesting graves to note. To your left, in the center a few rows back just before Grant Drive is polar explorer Rear Admiral Richard Byrd, credited with being the first person to fly over the North (doubtful) and South Pole. A row back, and a few graves to the right, is the nation's first African-American four star General; Daniel "Chappie" James. His squadron commander in the Tuskegee Airmen, Gen Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. is across Roosevelt Drive on top of the hill. When the Second Lieutenant Davis graduated West Point in 1936 the were exactly two African-American Army line officers, Davis and his father Brigadier Gen Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., the first black General. They are buried next to each other, with Gen. Davis, Jr. buried under a black granite tombstone viewable from the road. And lastly, we'll pass Sir John Dill, one of only two equestrian statues in Arlington. Sir John died in Washington, DC during World War II, after he was sent to the United States by Churchill as a liaison to the U.S., mostly because Churchill couldn't stand him and couldn't fire him.

This wraps up our visit to Arlington. Plan on about two hours for this walk, and it's a bit under two miles. And for my friends from Florida: they're called "hills" and they're perfectly normal.

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